What is the couple arguing about in Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants"? How does the iceberg technique affect the way that you view the couple and the story?

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Jig and the American never actually name the subject of their conversation. The closest they get is by referring to some kind of medical procedure, what the man calls "an awfully simply operation." He tells her that she will not "mind it" and that the procedure is "just to let...

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Jig and the American never actually name the subject of their conversation. The closest they get is by referring to some kind of medical procedure, what the man calls "an awfully simply operation." He tells her that she will not "mind it" and that the procedure is "just to let the air in." The American says that the two of them will be "fine afterwards. Just like [they] were before." Though it is not explicitly said, it is implied that this procedure might be an abortion.

Jig asks if the American man thinks that they will be "all right and . . . happy" after the operation. The man seems not to want to pressure her, saying she does not have to have this operation if she does not want to and that he would not have her do it if she does not want to, but he continues to stress how "simple" and "natural" a thing it is to do.

The fact that Jig seems so concerned that things will "be like they were" and that he will "still love [her]" seems to indicate that this procedure has something to do with their relationship, and his description of it—that it will only "let the air in"—makes it seem as though its purpose is to get rid of something, to make room for air, just as we might open a window to let out stale air inside a house. However, we know this would be an elective procedure, not something required to save Jig's life, because it is discussed as something optional, something possible, and not something required.

The iceberg technique, here, means that the couple never explicitly names what they are discussing. This omission is so glaring and so obvious that it adds to the reader's sense that their communication is absolutely terrible. They do not communicate well at all. The American man appears to really want her to get the "operation" but he will not come right out and say so. Jig seems apprehensive about the operation, and she is not comforted by the man's attempts to reassure her. In fact, she really wants them to stop talking altogether. She ultimately insists that she "feel[s] fine," even though it is totally clear that she doesn't. This technique, then, adds to their characterization and the development of their relationship, which is coming apart, it seems, because they just cannot communicate effectively.

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Ernest Hemingway believed that leaving out important details in his stories (often called the "iceberg theory") tended to make them more powerful. In his novel The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway leaves out the important fact that Jake Barnes has been castrated in World War I. The fact is implied but never overtly stated. Likewise, in the short story "Hills Like White Elephants," Hemingway never explicitly states the nature of the argument between the American and Jig, yet a close reading of the text identifies the topic as abortion. Two important references in the story reveal that abortion is the subject. First, Jig mentions how the hills resemble white elephants. A white elephant is often considered a gift which is burdensome and not really wanted. These hills are like the baby that Jig is carrying. Second, the American wants Jig to have an abortion and tends to refer to the medical procedure as simple and natural. He says,

"It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig...It's really not anything. It's just to let the air in."

For her part, Jig seems to resist the American's request to abort her baby but the issue is never resolved. Often analyzed by critics, some seem to feel that, judging by her perceived acquiescence to whatever the American wants, Jig will have the abortion. Others cite the fact that at the end of the story Jig and the American drink in different places (her at the table and him at the bar) to suggest that Jig will break off her relationship with the American and have the baby.  

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